Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Books that changed my life

These are not necessarily the greatest books I ever read, nor are they all books that I would be sympathetic with now (although most of them are), but they had a decisive influence on the direction of my intellectual life at the time I read them.* To use A.G. Sertillanges' categories, these books were formative of my intellect in decisive ways. Note: I am not including influential spiritual books, such as The Imitation of Christ, unless they also influenced me intellectually somehow.

Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Suess. (Early 1960s.) This is the only Suess we had in my house when I was growing up. I read it again and again. I especially liked the name "Oliver Boliver Butt." The influence it had was on the appreciation of the use of language (and a love of poetry).

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. (Early 1960s.) Once again, I read it over and over. I still don't know what to think of it, especially since I don't like much else that Silverstein wrote. It is very philosophical and transcends simple moralism by emphasizing sacrificial love.

Have Space Suit Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein. (1967.) This is the first book I ever checked out of the library on my own (upon the recommendation of my best friend, Jimmy Wilson, who called me "worm mouth" and then told me if I wanted to know what he was talking about I should read this book; at least he didn't call me "mother thing."). This opened the floodgates for my reading of science fiction. Because it was the 1960s and I was smart, everyone assumed I was going to be a scientist. My grandfather even bought me a subscription to Popular Science magazine. So I read Heinlein and Asimov especially, but also John Christopher and the Mushroom Planet books. And some anthologies. I think this was the beginning of my interest in philosophy. John Christopher especially had a humanistic perspective that transcended the crass materialism of Asimov and libertarian ethos of Heinlein, so I suppose I could put the tripod trilogy on my list. My dissatisfaction with science fiction and discovery of the next book took me out of the realm of implicit materialism into the realm of the invisible/symbolic and ultimately spiritual.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Middle high school--mid 1970s.) This opened intellectual vistas for me that I am still exploring and formally introduced me to the Catholic imagination (setting the Bible aside). It is the only book that I'm sure I'll read again and again until I die. It fueled my love of languages, literature, poetry and my belief that story is the proper vehicle for divine truth. It also helped me find C.S. Lewis, whose books were in general very influential in the development of my intellect and imagination. The birth of my true self began here.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. (1979--early college.) With East of Eden, the first adult novel I read on my own. Besides the connection with my home state (Oklahoma), this book reinforced and matured the interest in social justice that my parents tried to cultivate in me. I find the closing scene of The Grapes of Wrath among the most poignant in American literature.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. (1980--junior year in college.) I've read this book three times at various stages in my adult life. It not only helped seal my interest in philosophy, but reinforced my intuition that there was more to truth than a dry, scholastic dialectic can communicate. Hence Pirsig's use of the novel/travelogue to make his points. Also, his invocation of "quality" as an element in judgment of truth. I don't know if I would agree with him philosophically now (I'm much more of a Thomist than I was back then). I also don't like the epilogue in the later editions. It resolves something that should remain unresolved in the last line of the actual book.

A Grammar of Ascent, by John Henry Cardinal Newman and Itinerarium Mentis, by St. Bonaventure. (1980--senior year.) These two works read at the same time dominated the first semester of my senior year in college. They helped shape my understanding of the nature of the intellect act and what it means to know, including the role of the non-rational.

New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. (1980--Christmas.) I read a lot of Merton as a young adult Catholic. I liked this one the best. It is deeply grounded in the Greek patristic tradition, but is also colored by Merton's Benedictine and Carmelite studies. It helped me form a coherent theological anthropology.

Lost Christianity, by Jacob Needleman. Okay, this one borders on new age, but I read it at least three times and I wonder if Needleman's concept of middle Christianity may not somehow coordinate with de Lubac's insight about natural desire for the beatific vision. I'd have to reread it to see.

Poustinia, by Catherine de Hueck Doherty. (1981, after graduating from college and while working with the poor in Appalachia.) This book opened me up to the spiritual riches of the East and to the practice of quiet (which I am still not good at). The idea of a Word from God growing gradually in us makes a lot of sense. God's communication is often subtle. He accomplishes his task in our deepest self. We need to patiently and quietly await the eruption of the Word in consciousness. Sertillanges (mentioned later) makes this point from a Thomistic perspective.

The Way of All the Earth, by John S. Donne, C.S.C. (1982.) I hardly remember what this book was about, but I do know that it showed me how to look at the sweep of history theologically. I still remember the concept of axial man which I gained from this book, although I can't remember what it means. I never could read any of Dunne's other books.

The Good News About Sex, David Knight. (1983.) I read two books by Fr. Knight. The other was a book on spirituality called His Way, which led me to my favorite OT passage--Wisdom 9. This book was probably at the time the best, most sound presentation of the deep meaning of human, sexual bodiliness and it was geared toward young people. It anticipated the theology of the body in many ways. It should be noted that Knight publicly stated in 1996 that he does not accept as definitive the teaching that the Church has no authority to ordain women. I don't know where he stand on the issue now, or where he stood on it when The Good News About Sex was written. His understanding of the relationship between infallibility and the ordinary exercise of the teaching authority of the Church is faulty.

Lost in the Cosmos and A Message in a Bottle, by Walker Percy. (Late 1990s.) Once again, what does it mean to know and especially, what is the social context of authentic communication. What is the real drama that lies behind the American experience? A great analysis of the weaknesses of American culture severed from the Source and our predilection for violence and sexual perversion. A good spoof of Phil Donahue, as well.

Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis. (Late 1990s.) This is by far the best book Lewis ever wrote on the intellectual, psychological and spiritual levels. It certainly illustrates the glories and inadequacies of both chthonic religion and rationalism--in light of the true source of wisdom. It is the Lewis I would take on a desert island.

God and the Ways of Knowing, by Jean Danielou. (2002.) Of all the books by all the ressourcement authors, this is probably the single most influential book on my fundamental dogmatic theology. I seem to have a real attraction to books about knowing and the intellectual act. De Lubac is a separate case, who will be dealt with later.

Healing the Culture, by Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. (2003.) Ostensibly a book giving a coherent American philosophy of the pro-life movement, in fact, it contains a deep philosophical anthropology which allows Spitzer to articulate some clear, Ignatian inspired spiritual guidance.

Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla. (2003.) The anthropology of this book, quite classical, amazed me. I had never heard the sexual nature of man so clearly and obviously accurately stated. The book includes great critiques of utilitarianism, hedonism, romanticism, sentimentalism, etc. Adding this to the anthropological insights found in previous books made my view of man seemingly complete.

The Trivium, by Sr. Miriam Joseph, C.S.C.. (2007.) Strange that a textbook for College freshmen would have such an impact upon me. Yet, it articulates very clearly and systematically a deep, philosophical analysis on the meaning and use of language which underpins the essential role that the trivium plays in an authentic human education. After reading it I understood things I'd certainly learned before, but never assimilated into my own understanding. In particular I am amazed that I never realized that the predicate in a statement is about relationship. This is important, especially in a theologically informed anthropology, such as Wojtyla's mentioned above. Chapter eleven also has some very important practical material on writing and critiquing poetry, fiction and essays.

Student Guide to Liberal Learning, by Fr. James Schall, S.J. (2007.) A clear articulation of the kind of reading a young student should read and how they should read them to inoculate themselves against that ideological cesspool of the modern university. Schall especially emphasises the importance of self-discipline and moral character in developing a truly sane understanding of the whole and its relationship to God.

The Intellectual Life, by A.G. Sertillanges. (2007.) I haven't actually finished this book, but I know already it will having lasting influence. I should have read this in the early 1980s before starting my academic career. It talks about the virtues and practices of a person with an intellectual vocation. It is at the same time very philosophically and theologically grounded and very practical. I am sure my production will go way up if I follow this guide.

I have put nothing by de Lubac on this list because I can't choose which particular book of his was especially significant. They all fed me intellectually and spiritually. His is a vision of the Thing that I find most congenial. I guess The Discovery of God may come closest to my favorite.

*Note: I do not intentionally link to commercial bookstores on this site. Why should I give them free advertising? I presume anyone reading this will know how to find a book at a library or a bookstore.

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